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Editorials and Perspectives: Special Features

Sunday's Child? A Memoir by Leslie Baruch Brent

Morris, Jocelyn; Morris, Peter J.

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doi: 10.1097/TP.0b013e3181cca6cc
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In this powerful, but dispassionately told, story, Leslie Brent describes his life in three parts—his childhood and young adulthood; his professional career; and the man he became, his reflections about both his own life, and more generally, the human condition.

Leslie Brent had born in 1925, the much loved son of Arthur and Charlotte Baruch, German Jews whose families had lived in the then German city of Koslin for generations. His memories of his early childhood are of a happy, secure, uncomplicated time in a loving family. Initially, he was unaware of change and the increasing anti-Semitism, but by the age of 8, when the Nazis came to power, he too was feeling the effects. When he transferred to secondary school, the only Jewish child in his class, his life became increasingly difficult with isolation, withdrawal of friendships and eventually by 1936 outright bullying and physical abuse. His parents obtained a place for him at a Jewish Orphanage in Berlin, where his education could be continued in safety, and so his separation from his parents and sister began.

In 1938, he was chosen with several other boys at the Orphanage to travel to England on the first of the many Kindertransports. He spent the evening before he left with his family who comforted him with the idea that this would be a temporary separation. He never saw any member of his family again. He then spent 4 (despite the odds) happy years at Bunce Court, a boarding school for Jewish refugee children in Kent.

He, truly “Sunday's child” full of grace, emerged from his childhood as a survivor, an achiever, hard working, ambitious, athletic, capable of warm relationships, and successful both in his studies and extracurricular activities, despite a deep unhappiness about the uncertainty of the fate of his parents and sister. In the last letter he received, his father writes “We are going on a journey” (“wir verreisen”)—code for deported, although he did not understand the full significance at the time. The unselfish love of his parents, epitomized in the cheerful, loving notes they sent him through the International Red Cross until 1942, and the altruistic and caring nature of some staff at the Jewish Orphanage and of teachers and mentors in loco parentis at Bunce Court must have contributed to the development of his well-rounded personality and positive approach to life.

In January 1942 at the age of 16, Brent moved from Bunce school to his first job as a laboratory assistant at the Birmingham Central Technical College in the Chemistry Department. In 1943, he volunteered for the Army and rose to the rank of captain by the time he was demobilized in 1947. In the army, he was told he should change his name from his German Jewish name to something more English in case he was captured by the Germans. Because he wanted to keep his initials he chose Leslie as his first name, after the actor Leslie Howard, who was all the rage at the time, and after searching through all the B's in the phone book, he chose the name Brent as his surname. After leaving the army, he decided to retain his English name, Leslie Brent, but later added his father's family name, Baruch, as his middle name. His first posting in the army was to Northern Ireland, and then he was sent to Montgomery's 8th army in Germany in the spring of 1946 and was seconded to the Worcestershire regimen. This was a remarkable twist of fate in that 8 years before he had escaped on the Kindertransport and now was returning to Germany as a British Army Officer. After his unit had moved to Trieste, he had applied for a second time for compassionate leave to visit Berlin, and this time it was granted. He had 3 days to visit Berlin, and when he reached there, he was just amazed at the destruction and poverty in Berlin. He visited the last address at which his parents had lived, and amazingly the house was still standing, but there was no news of his parents or his sister. He then went to the town hall, which was in temporary accommodation near the center of the city, and there was a record of his parents and his sister but their names were listed as “Sent East.” He assumed that they had been deported to concentration camps where they must have died, but there was no evidence for that at the time.

His professional achievements in his chosen profession of immunology were legion and impressive and began with a 3 years Honors degree course in Zoology. This was completed successfully in 1951, despite having played “A” team hockey for the University throughout and having a major involvement in the Guild of Undergraduates of which he was President in his final year. He was awarded the vice chancellor's prize “For the Most Outstanding Undergraduate Student of the Year, 1950 to 1951.” Interestingly, he had tried to transfer to medicine from zoology, but this application was refused by the Dean, which was fortuitous as he otherwise never would have met Billingham and Medawar. Medawar was the Professor of Immunology and Billingham his lecturer.

In 1951, Peter Medawar asked him to join him as a postgraduate student, and he assumed that he had been recommended by Rupert Billingham. Medawar had just been appointed to the Jodrell Chair of Zoology at University College London (UCL), and he wanted Billingham and Brent to follow him at the end of 1951. The department of Zoology at UCL was full of talented and innovative people and must have been an amazingly exciting place to work. Brent's PhD thesis was directed at the induction of tolerance in mice, and the seminal paper was published in Nature in 1953, the authors being Billingham, Brent, and Medawar. In 1960, the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded for contributions to immunologic tolerance to Medawar and Frank McFarlane-Burnet, the Australian immunologist who had first developed the concept of neonatal tolerance some years before. Brent recounts in his book the letter that Medawar sent to his first wife Joanne enclosing a sizable check to them both, and in this letter, Medawar acknowledges the enormous contribution of Leslie Brent “And anyway it was his PhD thesis, not mine, that won the Prize.”

He spent a sabbatical year as a Rockefeller research fellow at the California Institute of Technology in 1956/1957 working with Ray Owen, another key player in the field of tolerance induction. He returned to UCL and then in 1962 become a research scientist with Medawar at the National Institute for Medical Research where Medawar had taken up a position as director. In 1965, Brent was appointed to the Chair of Zoology at the University of Southampton where he spent 4 years and then was appointed as Professor of Immunology at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, a position which he held until his retirement in 1990.

Brent was also a distinguished editor of this journal, Transplantation, from 1963 to 1968. He also served as general secretary of the British Transplantation Society for 4 years from 1971 to 1975, but one of the highlights of his career was his appointment as President of The Transplantation Society from 1976 to 1978. Interestingly, both Rupert Billingham and Medawar had been past presidents. He does recount an unfortunate series of events that occurred at the International Congress being held in Rome during his presidency, where he was being provided with a car to take him and his wife about, very luxurious quarters at the Hilton hotel, and everything that a President could wish for. However, quite suddenly a couple of days into the meeting, the car was withdrawn, and the chairman of the local organizing committee (who is nameless in the book and we shall respect this confidentiality) would barely speak to him. Furthermore, the Pope was to address the congress at St Peter's, and many of the eminent members of Transplantation Society were to meet with the Pope. Amazingly, Brent, the President of the Society, had been left off the list, no doubt because of the efforts of the chairman of the local organizing committee, who had a close relationship with the Vatican. Brent did not know what was responsible for this extraordinary behavior by the Italian organizer but presumed that he had heard on the grapevine that he had not been elected to the post of Vice President, for which he was a candidate. Although all the officers in the Society are elected by a postal vote from all the members, he no doubt felt that Brent, somehow or other, should have ensured his success.

In 1994, as recognition of his enormous contributions to transplant immunology, Brent was awarded the Medawar prize of The Transplantation Society. which is really the Nobel Prize of transplantation. Not unrelated in view of his career, he published in 1997 a very authoritative book on “A History of Transplantation Immunology.”

The history of this terrible time in Europe is graphically given an extradimension in this personal story of one family of whom only one was saved, Leslie Baruch Brent. As a man, apart from his prowess and eminence in his chosen career, he stands out as someone who was never, in bullying parlance, a bystander. He worked indefatigably in local politics in the cause of a just and fair society and at a national level exerted his unit of influence in a stream of letters expressing his well thought out and passionately held opinions. The understated factual approach to emotional issues does not hide the strength of his feelings related to such diverse issues as his first marriage to Joanne and his second marriage to Carol, his children, war in Iraq, and injustice in the Labor party.

However the scientific, detached side of his nature allowed him to cope with some setbacks. He gained no support at the time for his suggestion, as a newly appointed professor at St Mary's, that numbers of female and male students should be made more equal (then 20:80). He writes in this memoir that “before I left 21 years later the ratio was at least 50:50 and in some years there were more women than men, toilet facilities were improved, the rugby team's success continued unabated, and academic standards were even higher.” This gentle sense of humor entwined with his belief in fair play is often evident. On one occasion in Java, on noting that the driver of the cycle rickshaw taxi was older and less fit than him and appeared to be struggling with the incline, he changed places with him. “The face of the (hotel) porter who watched me arrive in the saddle, wearing an elegant suit, and pay the driver (for services only partially rendered) is a sight I still treasure!”

This memoir is an honest, unvarnished, unpretentious account of an extroardinary life encompassing human tragedy, personal grief, but also support from others, achievement, success and happiness, and is a moving story. The juxtaposition of unspeakable evil and individual goodness, aligned with a demonstration of the resilience of the human spirit, make a powerful and thought provoking cocktail.

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308pp, 30 Illustrations. New Romney, UK: Bank House Books.
© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.